Beth* thought Brian* was sweet – a little shy – but trustworthy. She knew from her parents to look for men who respect women. But when he got her alone, near their University of Minnesota campus, he began to push too hard, too fast. He didn’t stop when she asked him to. He didn’t seem to care when she said no. She realized what was about to happen, and her brain shut down.
Most people still envision sexual assault as a rare occurrence committed by strangers. In fact, 8 out of 10 times the rapist knows the victim, according to the National Institute of Justice.
The good news: Thanks partly to the 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, more victims are comfortable reporting rape to college authorities, often confidentially.
The bad news: The number of rapes has not gone down in decades. Research consistently indicates that 1 in 5 college women are victims of non-consensual sex.
“It’s a lion’s den out there, and we’re still asking our young people to fend for themselves,” says Caroline Palmer, law and policy manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).
Ways to say no
A persistent focus on “stranger danger” has clouded efforts to understand the real risks of sexual assault on campus:
1) Many young adults don’t know how to have healthy conversations about relationships, says Yvonne Cournoyer, MNCASA’s prevention program manager. With movies skipping over what happens between “the look” and people tearing their clothes off, she says, young people don’t know how to fill in the gaps.
2) Men who force themselves on women often don’t view themselves as predators – or they feel entitled. Many people don’t recognize that someone under the influence is not capable of giving consent.
3) Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted in their first two years of college, when they are new and inexperienced with alcohol.
4) The trauma of assault often renders women unable to fight off an attack or shout for help because of a hormonal influence called tonic immobility. Few non-stranger rapes are reported because the woman trusted the predator, and erroneously thinks she “let it happen.”
5) Because most acquaintance rapes are not reported, some predators are free to repeat their crimes again and again. A University of Massachusetts, Boston study of “undetected rapists” showed that 76 men accounted for 439 rapes or attempted rapes, for an average of 5.8 each.
6) Bystanders don’t step in when someone is being taken advantage of. Behaviors leading to an assault often have witnesses. The goal, says Donna Dunn, who recently retired as MNCASA’s executive director, is to keep aggressive behavior from becoming criminal.
7) We encourage women to reduce their risk by being in control: avoiding drinking, taking a self-defense class, de-feminizing their wardrobes. But it would be more effective to change attitudes that “boys will be boys.” We still tend to think “victims have to act right” in order to prevent rape – as if it is a natural consequence, Dunn says.
What we’re saying yes to
“Rape is a preventable crime,” says Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota, which also offers support for sexual assault victims at nearby Augsburg College.
The Aurora Center has a multi-pronged approach to reducing the numbers of rapes. It is helping educate students about what is and is not legitimate consent.
The center is working toward changing social norms about what constitutes healthy sexual behavior, encouraging bystanders to become “interrupters,” and helping women feel empowered to report violence, sexual assault and stalking.
A big step is teaching men what healthy masculinity is. “That’s the tough one a lot of organizations are grappling with,” Eichele says. Duluth-based Men as Peacemakers helped create training resources, now required for all Minnesota high school coaches, to prevent sexual violence and encourage respect for girls and women.
Although leaders at MNCASA and the Aurora Center are encouraged by changes, they know more training of first responders and students is needed. “I’m proud of the intervention and policies we’re creating in Minnesota,” which is considered a leader nationally, Eichele says. “But we are at the very beginning of prevention efforts.”
SAFER/Students Active for Ending Rape: safercampus.org
U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights keeps a list of all U.S. colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual violence cases. (No Minnesota colleges were on the list at presstime.) To request the list, contact the Office for Civil Rights: [email protected]
National Sexual Violence Resource Center statistics:tinyurl.com/nsvrc-facts
Men as Peacemakers:www.menaspeacemakers.org
Experts at the Aurora Center and MNCASA offer these prevention tips:
• Recognize behavior patterns. We want to trust the people around us. But ask: Does this person tend to have people’s best interests at heart? Are they able to take no for an answer?
• Remember that rapists aren’t usually strangers. People in positions of power sometimes take advantage of their helping role.
• Practice asking for permission. Eichele says she is teaching her two children to seek permission for physical contact, such as hugs.
• Don’t be a silent bystander. When a St. Cloud bystander saw a man focusing efforts on an intoxicated girl, he warned him that his car might be getting towed. While the man was distracted away, the girl was helped to a safer environment.
As the victim of date rape at the University of Minnesota in 1981, I recently started the conversation with my teenage daughter about campus assaults. It’s not easy to know what to say. “Don’t trust certain people, but you can’t tell who they are” isn’t great advice.
What I told her: Tell someone if something bad happens. I was 19 and wanted to pretend nothing happened. The man involved and I worked together, and I enjoyed my job. So … I continued to work alongside him for several years and blocked it out. That did psychological damage that I didn’t confront until I saw a therapist at age 30.
— Mikki Morrissette